Paisley: The World’s Oldest Form of Cultural Appropriation?

How Europe stole one of the oldest block prints from Indian, Iranian, and Kashmiri weavers — and why everyone from The Beatles to Bollywood donned it.

Mehr Singh

January 9, 2023

Paisley: The World’s Oldest Form of Cultural Appropriation?
The Beatles in the late 1960s wearing Paisley, shortly after their India trip. (Shutterstock)

In February 1968, hot on the heels of the psychedelic-fueled Summer of Love, The Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India searching for a new panacea. This new drug of choice wasn’t opium or hashish, but transcendental meditation, under a guru named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Photographers captured the frolicking band members exclusively in bright, crescent-shaped, block-printed garments. The following year, at Woodstock, thousands donned the pattern at the music festival, forever altering a generation’s sartorial sensibilities, which were already leaning eastward. 

Ask a group of people what a paisley print looks like, you’ll hear vastly different descriptions. Empress Joséphine, the wife of Napoleon I, likened the print to tadpoles, which were also dinner for the French at the time. In mainland China, the oblong shape shifts into a taijitu, symbolizing yin and yang, two opposing halves of a whole. Unsurprisingly, every Indian state has likened the form to some rendition of a mango or a peacock’s body. Across Europe, it morphs into a kidney, a hamhock, a cucumber, a peacock’s feather, a Welsh pear, the eye of a hurricane. 

But, if you were an 11th-century Indo-Iranian weaver who created the pattern in the Kashmir Valley, you would simply, if anticlimactically, call the shape a boteh jegheh, meaning “ancient symbol.” And despite paisley’s prominence as a Rorschach test of prints, most people do not know what it represents, its origins, or how Europe stole the pattern.